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ICE audits two Washington fruit companies

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Two tree fruit companies in North Central Washington are being audited by ICE and could lose employees, the Washington Farm Labor Association says.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — A large tree fruit company in Wenatchee and a smaller one in the Okanogan are undergoing federal I-9 audits that could cost them employees, the director of the Washington Farm Labor Association says.

The director, Dan Fazio, would not reveal the names of the companies but said the audit of the Wenatchee firm by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began in September and the Okanogan firm began the first week of November. Audit of a Puget Sound landscaping firm began in August, he said.

“We don’t confirm or deny an audit until there is public enforcement action, and a majority of audits are resolved without enforcement action,” said Andrew Munoz, an ICE spokesman in Seattle.

In fiscal year 2013, there were 3,122 I-9 audits resulting in 651orders to employers requiring them to stop violating laws and directing them to pay fines totaling nearly $16.7 million, according to ICE.

Munoz said there can be civil and criminal penalties and that it’s illegal for a company to keep workers it cannot prove are legally eligible to work.

“Fines are bad but not the worst thing. The worst thing is losing good, trained workers and scrambling to find new ones,” Fazio said.

The Wenatchee company is now awaiting a letter from ICE telling it how many employees it needs to fire, he said. Document review is just getting started in the Okanogan case, he said.

The I-9 is a federal eligibility form required by all U.S. employers for each worker to verify identification and citizenship or immigration status. Job applicants pick which documents they want to use to show eligibility and employers can’t reject them on mere suspicion without risking violation of anti-discrimination laws.

ICE looks at the accuracy of forms and checks the status of each worker, Fazio said.

Fortunately, harvest is done, because ICE no longer allows an employer to negotiate continued employment of undocumented workers to provide an orderly transition, he said. Instead, the agency requires termination within 10 days of notification, he said.

In August, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced ICE would conduct more I-9 audits, Fazio said. Labor attorneys and others with sources in ICE believe 1,000 I-9 audit notices were issued nationwide in August and September, he said.

“This is a politically motivated exercise designed to deceive the public while doing absolutely nothing to address the underlying issue,” Fazio said.

Audits crack down on employers but don’t deport illegals, who are rehired elsewhere, Fazio said.

Audits are being done so President Barack Obama can say he’s getting tough on employers hiring illegal aliens as he pushes for immigration reform, Fazio said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if ICE does another 1,000 early in 2014,” he said.

The best solution is to make it easier to hire legal foreign guestworkers, but the Obama administration is hostile to that, Fazio said.

Gebbers Farms, in Brewster, lost hundreds of employees to an I-9 audit early in 2010. Broetje Orchards, in Prescott, lost several hundred in 2011, Fazio said, but only a few have taken place since then and none in the past year or so. Gebbers has since turned heavily to the H-2A foreign guestworker visa program despite the added cost of providing housing and transportation.

The Washington companies now under audit have hired the Washington Farm Labor Association to help them through the process and to plan strategies, Fazio said.

Employers should conduct self-audits, never waive their right to take three days to assemble documents and can, by law, make technical corrections to forms during that time, he said.



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